Since 1991 the Kurdish street has been disconnected from the Arab one in Iraq, following social and political dynamics specific to the Kurdistan Region (KRG). With the al-Sadr uprisings, we once again saw the residents of the KRG play a more or less passive role towards the deadlock conflict and a near civil-war situation.
After the gulf war, the Kurdish areas in Northern Iraq, also known as Bashuri Kurdistan [Southern Kurdistan], have been enjoying significant independence from the central government in Iraq. Its capital Erbil hosts its parliament, ministerial and presidential buildings, which process the people’s securitarian, legal, social, and residential needs. This has made the individual citizens of the Kurdistan Region not require visiting or recognizing the capital of Iraq, the State are still technically part of.
Currently, Iraq itself is facing one of its worst deadlocks in decades as the different political blocks negotiate over the government’s allocation of ministries and resources. Critical positions are seized by the blocs that scored most seats in the elections. However, the election occurred ten months ago, and a new government hasn’t been formed yet.
In an attempt to break the deadlock of the Iraqi parties on forming the new government, the leader of Sairoon, the parliament’s main group, made a move. Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric and a self-portrait savior of the poor and disadvantaged Iraqi masses, commanded a massive protest and seizure of governmental institutions.
Al-Sadr is the son of the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr, a prominent Iraqi Shia cleric who was critical of Saddam Hussein and his persecution of the Shia population in Iraq. This made the Ayatollah popular among the poor Shia population; with the assassination of the father in 1999, al-Sadr, the son, inherited the mass support and has led the movement since then.
An attempt to reciprocate
During the violent protests that took place in central and southern Iraq, the Kurdish majority observed the situation from a distance, through their TV channels. However, in a parallel bid, Iraqi Kurdish politician and businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid, the leader of the New Generation party, called for mass protests in the Kurdish cities against corruption and lack of basic needs.
Unlike al-Sadr, his protests did not receive widespread support and the small-scale protestors were mainly cadres of his party. Nevertheless, the Kurdish authorities, mostly composed of Kurdistan’s Democratic Party (KDP), a clan-based party with militias affiliated to it that allow the Barzani tribal leaders to rule over Erbil and Duhok provinces, quickly and brutally attacked the protestors and arrested numerous journalists, activists and members of the New Generation party.
One reason for the lack of support for the call of demonstration from the people is that, unlike al-Sadr, the Kurdish people don’t admire nor trust Abdulwahid and his intentions. “The Kurds have lost trust in the entirety of the political system, and they see that Shaswar Abdulwahid is also part of the problem,” says Mera Bakkr, a freelance researcher based in KRG.
“The Kurds have been detached from the State they live in. They live in Kurdistan, which is autonomous, yes, but it is still linked to Iraq in every aspect; however, this part has been undermined and purposefully ignored by the Kurdish political leaders.” Mr. Bakkr adds.
“For Kurds to demonstrate, they need their own local reasons; you cannot simply ride on a wave initiated by Al-Sadr created,” Aween Aso, an International Studies graduate explains. “Mr. Shaswar Abdulwahid is a businessman who has made many shady deals and extracted capital from the people with the promise of shares and profit returns, but he never delivered on those promises.” She adds, “this is also why he is always physically kicked out of the mass protests that take place in the Kurdish street.”
The official reactions from the Kurdish leaders, such as the President and the Prime Minister, all asked for de-escalation. They suggested that Erbil could be a host for the conflicting parties to meet and negotiate peace.
Years ago, in 2017 and during the Kurdish independence referendum, Moqtada Al-Sadr suggested that the referendum was suicide and warned Masoud Barzani not to proceed with it. The cleric’s militia took part in the takeover of Kirkuk and other disputed areas that Kurdish forces still held until then, which the Federal government reclaimed as a sanction for what was perceived in Baghdad as an unconstitutional referendum orchestrated by the KRG. The Kurdish forces were quick to withdraw from those contested territories, making it very easy for the central government to regain control of it with the help of militias affiliated to the federal government.
These past conflicts did not stop the Kurdish parties from making alliances with the Shiite blocs in Iraq, especially with al-Sadr; however, with the call for the resignation of the MPs by the Sadrists, the Kurdish parties asked their representative not to resign. Instead, the Kurdish parties focused on their intra-conflicts which usually revolve around the presidency of Iraq, which is given to the Kurds and is controlled by the two rival parties PUK (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls Sulaymanuyeh’s province with its militias) and the KDP. Currently, the Kurdish and Sunni powers are not taking sides in this conflict, preferring to wait and see who it will be more fit to make an alliance with after the storm of power conflicts calms down.
Al-Sadr has always had a strong influence on both the Iraqi street and the government. However, he was unable to use his powers in appointing the new Iraqi cabinet this time and asked all of his MPs to resign. When he was still ignored after this unprecedented maneuver, he ordered his supporters to take the streets in the hope of pressuring the government and changing the balance of power in the government and reasserting his influence on the formation of the cabinet.
The protesters breached the Green Zone, and many governmental and presidential palaces and buildings, including the parliament, were taken over them, crippling the political process in Iraq.
When fear of collapse of the governmental institutions became real, strong reactions arose, condemning the violence and calling for an immediate ceasefire. Iraqi parties, leaders, the UN Mission in Iraq, the European Union, and various regional powers voiced their concern, in vain. The clashes between al-Sadr supporters against Iraqi forces and other Shia counter-protests became heavier and deadlier, resulting in the death of tens of people and injuring many more.
The conflict got worse, especially when al-Sadr announced his retirement from politics when his demands all faced dead ends and then made his supporters ‘free’ to demand what they wanted in any way they saw fit.
Even after his retirement announcement, the conflict did not end until al-Sadr asked his supporters to back down, leave the governmental buildings, and return home. It did not take long for the situation to calm down and for Iraqi forces to take back the Green Zone and other official buildings and checkpoints.
Back in Kurdistan, the call for protests from Shaswar Abdulwahid resulted in the arrest of many journalists and activists that wanted to cover the event. This is not surprising as the regional government is infamous for its crackdown on free speech, imprisonment, and assassination of journalists. However, channels such as K24 and Rudaw, which are respectively owned and funded by the Prime Minister, and his cousin, the Kurdistan President, both from the KDP, covered the protests intensely in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
Yet, these channels remained silent or downplayed the demonstrations that occured in areas under the control of the Kurdish government. This was pointed out by many Kurdish observers and experts, as the Kurdish parties claim to respect and protect different opinions; however, hundreds of journalists and activists have been detained and imprisoned on false charges in the Kurdistan region for giving voice to those criticizing the government.
This situation only leaves the party-owned or privately owned channels to paint the picture for the outside observers. However, many are concerned that it is significantly different from what’s happening in the region. Moreover, it also affects legitimacy and support for mass protests when they occur in Kurdistan, and the whole picture hardly ever reaches the audience outside of Kurdish-controlled areas. Cutting off the people from the world, especially from their Iraqi counterparts who the news of demonstrations in Kurdistan Region rarely ever reaches them—detaching the two nations further even though they co-exist in the same state.